In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Ori Henderson-Sapir, a physicist at the University of Adelaide, Australia, and the founder of Mirage Photonics. Henderson-Sapir has more than 10 years of experience developing mid-infrared fiber lasers and is one of the inventors of the dual-wavelength pumping technique to improve mid-infrared laser efficiency.
He obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Adelaide, working on the development of mid-infrared fiber optic lasers with the lasers and optics group. He then divided his time as an optics and laser engineer at Ellex Medical and as a research associate at the University of Adelaide.
Henderson-Sapir has always had a keen interest in the commercialization of mid-infrared laser technology, so in 2017, he founded the laser startup Mirage-Photonics with Ka Wu to bring the technology they developed to the market. He then joined the precision measurement group at the Institute for Photonics and Advances Sensing (IPAS) at the University of Adelaide, working on cryogenic sapphire oscillators for ultra-stable clock development and commercial maturation.
In 2020, he returned to researching near-infrared and mid-infrared fiber lasers and their applications. Henderson-Sapir is presently a member of the University of Adelaide's OzGrav node, focusing on using mid-infrared fiber lasers for gravitational wave detection and advancing their commercialization via Mirage Photonics.
What first interested you in pursuing science?
I always remember tinkering as a child and especially taking apart old TV sets that were piled up in my aunt’s basement. At school, I studied physics and chemistry, and from a young age I attended science and technology classes after school. Although I did a physics and mathematics B.Sc. and an M.Sc. in electronic engineering, I gravitated more toward the engineering disciplines afterward.
I moved to Australia at the end of 2006, and in 2007 the global financial crisis hit, so there were almost no employment opportunities. Over the course of two years, I considered increasingly less-skilled positions and, after failing to secure even a job at the local burger joint, decided to return to university to pursue a Ph.D. I really loved the intensive science research environment and being able to explore things that no one had done before!
What aspect of your current work do you find the most interesting or exciting?
“I love tinkering in the lab. I also love helping my students learn how to better tinker in their lab and generally grow as researchers and people.” —Ori Henderson-Sapir
I love tinkering in the lab. I also love helping my students learn how to better tinker in their lab and generally grow as researchers and people. It is very gratifying to see how a student who could barely tell the wrong end of a screwdriver becomes an independent researcher and spreads their wings.
What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals?
Networking can go against the grain for many of us, as many scientists tend to be more introverted. However, building your networks is an important and essential part of advancing one’s career. It took me many years to be able to just go up to someone at a networking event and start chatting.
If you (the reader) are just like me, start small: attend your local department seminar and morning tea, and over snacks, ask someone who you know but don’t usually interact with much about their research. After you have built those confidence muscles, move on to bigger events (like the faculty awards function) and engage with someone from another group, and so on. Baby steps are the key for many of us.
What professional resources do you rely on to stay active and engaged with your field?
I read (and review) lots of papers, and I am on the CLEO scientific review committee for my field, which really allows me to learn about the latest developments in the area. I also try to read widely on many scientific and engineering fields to learn what is happening in the technology sphere and get ideas for potential solutions that could be applied in my area, as well as issues that could be tackled with the technology I work with.
I also give seminars dedicated to encouraging researchers to commercialize their research and explaining what to expect along this path based on my own experience with my startup, Mirage Photonics. I find those seminars to be a very useful tool for making connections with other research groups, as well as learning about the academia–industry collaborative and commercial landscape at different places.
What skills do you think are most important for someone interested in a career like yours?
From a technical perspective, there are so many skills that I needed to do what I did that pointing to specific ones is difficult. I could point, however, to a general approach of being “helpful” to others as a common thread throughout my career—assisting my colleagues whenever I could without considering potential competition, politics or asking for something in return from their end. In almost all cases, this resulted in a lot of goodwill. Those colleagues were much more likely to assist me later when I needed their support.
What advice do you have for young scientists who are discouraged about their current work or career path?
“My approach is that it’s okay not to know what you want to do when you 'grow up.' Trying different paths to see what suits you best and works for you is a valid choice.” —Ori Henderson-Sapir
My approach is that it’s okay not to know what you want to do when you “grow up.” Trying different paths to see what suits you best and works for you is a valid choice (despite your parents telling you otherwise). There is a lot of focus, especially in some cultures, on knowing exactly how your life should look like 10 years from now.
Life is full of surprises and opportunities, and it is a shame not to try different jobs, locations, etc., especially earlier in your career when you have fewer commitments that tie you down. So, see how you can maximize both your impact and your personal life by trying different things.
What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student/early in your career?
Learn to say no so you can focus on what’s important. We often want to be able to do everything and agree to take on anything that we are asked to do. This is especially true at the early stages of our careers. However, this approach leads to constantly being exhausted while not doing all of those million tasks well, with some completely falling off the edge of our ever-expanding to-do list.
Pausing for a second before saying yes and thinking, will accepting this additional committee role progress my career or improve the project outcomes? Do I really want to do it? What other activity will I de-prioritize? Can my mental health cope with this?
We can often feel uncomfortable saying no to our supervisors, but if we remind them what is on our plate and ask them to prioritize it when a new task is added, they will usually do so. As a young professional/researcher, we often have more time. However, as our commitments build over time, especially outside the workplace, we need to ensure that we know what we are giving up when we agree to everything thrown at us.
What has been the most motivating factor throughout your career?
I truly enjoy working with cool technology and working on new technology at the cutting edge of the field. Telling myself that I have seen or done something that no one else has before me is a very powerful motivator for me.
What habits do you frequently rely on that help you to succeed?
I think what helped me throughout my career, everywhere I went, was being resilient. Equipment breaks, papers get rejected, grants are not granted and you miss out on deals with clients. I always found it imperative to take a deep breath, think about what went wrong and how we can do better next time, and then have another (better) go.
It took me four years to manage to get the laser I developed for my Ph.D. to work for the first time. There were so many failed attempts and dead ends, but I learned from them all and eventually got the laser to work.
If your ten-years-younger self was looking at your career now, what would he/she be most surprised by?
Probably that I am still involved in academia! I always assumed that I would be in industry positions, but I kept an open mind about it. Being able to combine both industry focus through my startup and academia is a privilege, and I love what I am doing!